Spartans’ Izzo crosses paths again with Sooners’ Kruger

Published 3:14 am Friday, March 27, 2015

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn’t sure where his career would have led had he accepted the Atlanta Hawks’ offer some 15 years ago.

“I’d have probably been fired a week later,” Izzo said with a self-deprecating smile on Thursday.

And Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger isn’t going to hold it against Izzo for turning down the Hawks’ job and recommending they hire him.

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“I don’t know if I should thank him or not,” Kruger joked, recalling how he was fired after two-plus seasons. “Other than getting fired in Atlanta, it was all good. Yeah, I wouldn’t change anything.”

The two coaches whose careers have taken divergent paths reunite in an NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinal at Syracuse on Friday night. That’s when the third-seeded Sooners (24-10) face the seventh-seeded Spartans (25-11).

This is old hat for Izzo, who has reached the Sweet 16 for fourth-straight year, and 13th in 20 seasons at Michigan State.

Kruger, who has taken more of a scenic route to coaching, has reached the regional round for the fourth time and with his fourth team.

Whatever works, said Izzo, referring to the 62-year-old Kruger, who is at his sixth school in a 27-year college career.

“I think Lon Kruger has proven that no matter where he goes, he can make tweaks in what he does, but his system works,” Izzo said.

The Sooners are just the latest example of Kruger’s rebuilding ability. In four years under Kruger, Oklahoma is making its deepest tournament push since the Blake Griffin-led Sooners reached the Elite 8 in 2009.

Oklahoma features a stifling defense that’s limiting opponents to a 38.6 field-goal percentage. On offense, they’re led by Bahamian-born guard Buddy Hield, the Big 12 Player of the Year, who is averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.

The Spartans are one of the tournament’s surprise teams after a 60-54 win over second-seeded Virginia last weekend.

They’ve won six of seven, and done it with timely shooting and aggressive defense in making up for a team that lost three of its four top scorers last spring.